WASHINGTON, D.C. — Everything old is new again. Even if it’s 100 years old.
Some U.S. bishops, just months after the end of the Great War — better known today as World War I — met to assemble a proposal for a “reconstruction” program for the country now that the war had ended.
The date of their “Proposal for Social Reconstruction” was Feb. 12, 1919 — almost exactly 100 years ago to the day it was the topic of a session at this year’s Catholic Social Ministry Gathering.
In the document, the bishops outlined several of the domestic policy priorities still pushed by Catholic advocates attending the Feb. 2-5 gathering in Washington.
Steven Bogus, vice president for social enterprise and workforce development with Catholic Charities USA, said the bishops’ program called for “a minimum wage, a living wage,” although the latter term had not been coined. One specific detail mentioned in 1919 was that “the wage during the war should not be lowered” after the war. “We should definitely not make people make less,” Bogus said.
The bishops also promoted what they then called “social insurance” to guard individuals and families from financial ruin due to illness, unemployment, old age and “invalidity,” Bogus said at a Feb. 4 presentation.
The thinking behind this element of the program, according to Bogus, was “we need to do something more than just a wage. If people are going to have this life,” he said, “there has to be more to it. We have to be in need of insurance when there is illness, invalidity, unemployment and old age. … What are we talking about, Social Security?” If so, Bogus continued, the bishops were asking: “What are we going to do? How are we going to fix it?”
Also touted by the bishops, Bogus said, was “the right of labor to organize and deal with management” through representatives — a goal that, in the bishops’ words, will hopefully “never be called in question by any considerable number of employers.” The shorthand version, according to Bogus: “We need to have collective bargaining.”
Also “universally acknowledged” by the bishops in 1919 was “the need for industrial training” — or vocational training in today’s parlance, Bogus added.
Something else noted by the bishops a century ago was “the enormous inefficiency and waste in production and distribution of commodities,” as well as “insufficient incomes for the great majority of wage earners.” Further, the bishops observed income inequality even then, commenting on the “unnecessarily large incomes for a small minority of privileged capitalists.”
Clayton Sinyai, a co-panelist with Bogus at the workshop, was willing to go back even further in time. “This is nothing new,” he said. “This is as old as the industrial Revolution.”
Sinyai added that at the time of “Rerum Novarum” — the 1891 encyclical on capital and labor by Pope Leo XIII that ushered in the age of Catholic social teaching — the pope himself had seen “the enormous fortunes of some few individuals in this new economy and the utter poverty of the masses: ‘Working men have been surrendered and isolated to the greed of unchecked competition.'”
Nor is this concept tucked away on the dusty shelves of some archive, according to Sinyai. St. John Paul II, in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Excercens, said he “considered the payment of a living wage to be the criteria for verifying the justness of any particular economic system.”
“The free-market economy is marvelous at many things. Our economy produces remarkable growth. It permits individuals a lot of choices, which is commensurate with human dignity,” Sinyai said. “But the one thing that it doesn’t do: The economy hasn’t assured that to every worker, including the least of these. We have an economy that’s in need of systemic repair.”
One of the two remedies Sinyai sees comes from Rerum Novarum: “Workers, by forming workingmen’s associations and negotiating with employers,” can secure a living wage for themselves. “Failing that,” he added, “the state can step in to regulate the economy.”